- Written by Gagandeep Singh /
- Published: 05 September 2014
If there is one thing I can safely say action games don’t have enough of, it's that they don’t have enough spies. I don’t mean battle-hardened, brooding douche muffins who compliment the player’s ass-kicking prowess with little more than glorified crying. No I mean the confident, charismatic, and cool spies like Kate Archer and Joanna Dark. You know, the characters made in the vein of James Bond, and less in the vein of Jason Bourne.
Dynamighty must have had similar thoughts when creating Counterspy, because here they are with a stealth-action game that takes its presentation cues from 1960s Cold War spy flicks. The game has a striking aesthetic that sets the tone for both gameplay and setting as something simple, but completely over the top and bombastic. It strips away the complexity of modern stealth-action games in favor of straightforward sneaking around and shooting.
You see, Counterspy is a 2D side-scrolling action game where the player takes the role of a trained operative of C.O.U.N.T.E.R whose sole objective is to make sure tomorrow never dies because of nuclear warfare. You will infiltrate enemy compounds from two warring factions (essentially The US and Russia), work quietly in the shadows to avoid detection and gather collectibles and info that will help you stop World War 3.
A mission ends if you can make it from one end to the other end of the level, and progression is based on how many files you collected during the mission. The game is separated into 5 sets of gathering files, and some missions will only allow you get one file at a time, while the most difficult will provide you an opportunity to get 4 files at any given time. What makes this all challenging and interesting is the metagame DEFCON level that is connected to the missions, the level select, which is tied to everything the player must abide by.
Each country has a DEFCON level, and the highest level is DEFCON 5, where you deal with the least amount of security and tension. If the player then brings too much attention to themselves by being spotted or dies in combat, then the DEFCON level raises gradually, and the DEFCON level carries from level to level. Essentially, you can make one country to get too hot and difficult depending on how you’ve been playing when you’re slinking around in one of their compounds.
The kicker is if you let the DEFCON level hit 0, then the player has 60 seconds to make it to the end of the level, or that country launches their nukes, and it's game over. This entire system creates a risk and reward system where being more aggressive and going to the hotter country can actually yield more difficult missions, but with bigger payoffs. You can progress through the game quicker by picking the hotter country to gather extra files, or you can make the game easier on yourself by always taking the conservative route.
It’s this same metagame that forces the player to be quite, swift, and efficient in a level, albeit one where you must shoot your way through a level. That’s because in contrast to other action-stealth games, Counterspy is built with the idea that you have a license to kill, and so the stealth is there to make the combat satisfying. While you navigate the world like any other 2D-side scrolling action game, you can also get into cover with a click of a button, and this changes the perspective of the game into a third-person cover shooter.
In this perspective, the player is able to survey everything that’s ahead of them in a way that they couldn’t when the game is in 2D, and what the player is constantly presented with is a view to a kill. Usually, that just means a guard or two, but the most elaborate scenarios present up to five or six guards at a time, with varying weapons at their disposal. In these situations, the game becomes more of a gallery shooter, where the player has to be mindful of enemy movement patterns and their vision cones.
It takes what is usually a banal aspect of modern cover shooters, the whack-a-mole like combat sequence, and turns it into an engaging combat puzzle where the player not only has to pick when to strike, but who to strike, and in what order. At its best, you are swiftly taking down multiple enemies at a time, properly picking them apart before they know what hit them or waiting for that perfect moment where the enemies lineup near an explosive, and then boom! They’re all dead.
There are also collectibles found in levels that make combat more intriguing, such as blueprints for unlockable weapons and hidden formulas. The formulas work as stat boosts and conditions you can use once per level that include a damage reduction, more precise aim, or even a lowered DEFCON level, while the weapons range from the stealth gaming beast that is always the silenced pistol to machine guns, shotguns, to more unique things like a dart gun.
The cash and intel you collect during a level dictate how many weapons you can buy, how many formulas you can buy per level, and more importantly, if you can refill ammo. In Counterspy, the ammo doesn’t auto refill, and you don’t find ammo for your specialty guns in the field, so the game is balanced to take away any chance you have at just mindlessly shooting your way through.
That said, for all of its unique ideas, the game does have rough edges, and one of them is specifically the enemy AI. Too often it feels like there is no consistency between when and why an enemy is able to spot the player, as their vision cones (which you can’t see) can vary from screen to screen. Often, I found myself doing something in one screen that didn’t get me spotted because I was far enough away, only to be punished for the same thing in the very next area because the game deemed that the enemy had spotted me.
Control-wise, the game simply isn’t tight enough to justify some of the encounters it does throw at you, and that’s amplified when the AI is giving you fits. The game has no obvious cover to cover moves, so getting out of cover can feel clunky and awkward, and often times just moving from cover to cover during certain encounters requires a level of finesse the controls don’t allow.
This becomes especially infuriating during later stages in the game when you begin dealing with enemies who do not die if you shoot them in the head, as later stages just add spongier versions of enemies you have seen before. It all makes the tail end of the game difficult, but it feels like the game got there by being a bit cheap, forcing you to use specific weapons, as opposed to playing with a style you prefer.
That said, you should be able to power through most of the difficult segments the game does throw at you, and even if it leaves you a bit shaken, you shouldn’t end up too stirred. Instead, you can muscle your way through to the game’s final level and save the world from nuclear holocaust, all with striking visuals that provide a bold and colorful 1960s that would be right in line with something you would see in a Pixar flick.
And that’s what Counterspy is: a stylized and unique action-stealth game that comes with some rough edges. It’s not nuanced enough to be something truly great, but it’s a genuinely unique take on the genre. In a lot of ways, it’s like one of those old Bond flicks; you aren’t here for depth or to find some meaning in it all, but more so because you want something with style. Counterspy has style.